One of my favorite baseball expressions has always been the use of the word “fireman” to indicate a relief pitcher who enters the game in times of trouble to snuff out a rally. Last night, the Boston Red Sox continue to make it clear that their bullpen is full of pitchers who can do anything but, and who deserve a moniker more fitting to their counterproductivity.
In a tale too oft-told so far this season, the Sox ‘pen nearly coughed up a decent early lead, and though the club held on for the win, there were several points at which it appeared that the roof was about to fall in. The game stories will provide all of the sordid details, so suffice it to say here that second and third alarms need to be rung, and rung quickly, before the whole edifice collapses.
And perhaps those alarms already are ringing: Alex Miller was yanked from the rotation in Pawtucket this week and put into the bullpen, and Rich Hill appears on the verge of completing his rehab. These two bits of news suggest that Justin Thomas’ time with the Sox is about over, and either Matt Albers or Vicente Padilla – who yesterday actually pitched all right – may be out the door shortly thereafter.
Why not Alfredo Aceves, who was named closer after Andrew Bailey went down with an injury and has done little but set fires ever since? Because he has proven himself to be enormously effective in middle relief and as a swingman, and the sooner he can be reinserted into that role, the better off both he and the team will be. He has already said that he is not comfortable ending games, and if actions speak louder than words, then his actions on the mound have positively screamed “get me out of here!”
So if not Aceves, then who closes? The reflex answer is Daniel Bard, who has been nothing but groomed for that job since the day in the minors he moved in to the bullpen. The problem here is that it appears from all reports that he may not actually want to occupy that particular slot, and if that’s true, it would be a disaster to put him there since that is one place in which total commitment is especially necessary. Plus, if the organization is serious about having him start, then they need to stick to that plan rather than bounce him back and forth and likely cause him to be less than maximally effective in both roles.
The sad fact is that it probably doesn’t really much matter who closes at this point, for it is unlikely that the next designee will do any worse than Aceves already has. As long as he has the proper mentality and at least two decent pitches, the Sox will not be any worse off than they are now at the end of games, and likely will be better off in the middle.
There is no shame in discovering that a pitcher’s mindset may be better suited for firefighting than finishing. But there is shame in a team’s continuing to give boxes of matches to pitchers who are supposed to be fanning hitters rather than flames, and the time is now to roll out additional trucks.